If you’ve been anywhere near TikTok the past few days, you’ve likely seen the endless Booktok edits centered around people’s favorite romantic hero: Mr. Darcy. While there have been several modern characters that take inspiration from him, nothing has come close to Jane Austen’s iconic character.
However, there are several other novels besides Pride and Prejudice that young readers ages 13-25 have been drawn to in the past year, such as Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. The latter novel was most recently adapted by Netflix and released on July 8th of 2022. Now, with a growing online audience and plenty of Netflix subscribers willing to give the film a watch, it was expected to rake in great reception.
What happened was just the opposite, with the modern adaptation of Austen’s classic receiving backlash online and standing with a 31% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as compared to the high ratings that other Austen adaptations have received. What about the 2022 Austen adaptation that made it less famous than others? The answer: not knowing what audience you’re catering to.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: period pieces are not for everyone. Viewers might not like the fashion, complex dialogue, or era-related themes. To find the middle ground between viewers who love Austen’s work for the era it was released and casual watchers who simply
want an easy viewing, directors have attempted to blend modernism with classical interpretation. Sometimes, this works out so well that you create an adaptation more quoted than the original. But, when you get it wrong, the result is scenes like this:
The new Persuasion adaptation’s attempt at blending modern lingo with a 17th-century period backdrop just doesn’t work for either audience. Why is that you may ask? It seems like the film doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a modern-day rom-com where the heroine says this to her friend on Facetime, or is it a classical film where she expresses her feelings over tea with a family friend? In reality, it’s a woman in 17th-century England dropping Gen-Z slang in a horse-drawn carriage. Viewers have all agreed that it was jarring to see such a visual and historical contradiction, especially concerning such iconic source material.
Several elements of Austen’s stories have made them timely, even though they’re over 200 years old. Dr. Melissa Rampelli, Associate Professor of English and Writing & English Coordinator for the School of Arts and Sciences at Holy Family University, believes that Austen’s appeal is much more intricate than surface-level romance.
“At the backbone of Austen’s novels is the marriage plot, often made juicy through the shifting tensions of the beloved 19th-century love triangle,” says Dr. Rampelli. “That makes for a good romance then and now. But the recurring turn to Austen also has to do with class and gender commentary and the soothingness of stability and closure. Calling out and critiquing the suffocating nature of class and gender structures provides satisfaction to many that can appeal to readers/viewers even today.”
The Austen renaissance in current media can be attested to the newest audience for these stories: Gen-Zers. Young teens to young adults have been flocking to Austen’s works, and in hand have been viewing the film adaptations of these classic romance novels. Though Persuasion (2022) fell short in terms of scratching that hopeless romantic itch, here are some tried-and-true Austen adaptations to make any romantic swoon:
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
This adaptation of Austen’s most popular novel was directed by Joe Wright and sported a stellar cast. Taking direct quotes from the book and keeping true to the setting are just some of the highlights of this film. The greatest virtue? Matthew Macfadyen saying: “You’ve bewitched me, body and soul.”
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
This 6-episode BBC series fully fleshed out Austen’s most famous novel, bringing to life her iconic characters with era accuracy and timeless lovability. The only selling point this series needs is Colin Firth in the lake scene.
A better way to revamp an Austen classic that doesn’t include full-on 90’s glory? As if! This 1995 film by Amy Heckerling quickly became one of the most iconic films of the decade, especially with how seamlessly it translated Austen’s Emma into a California high school setting with snobby-but-kind Cher at its forefront.
On the flip side, Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Austen’s Emma brings a more period-accurate approach to the story. But this doesn’t sacrifice any of the humor or beauty of the source material. The handsome, clever, and rich Emma -played by Anya Taylor Joy- meddles in other people’s relationships while figuring out her conflicting feelings towards marriage.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
One of the most traditional Austen adaptations on this list, the 1995 film of one of Austen’s less popular novels wins your attention with its authenticity. “Austen’s novels— especially Sense and Sensibility—have a biting tone toward women’s and young brother’s financial precariousness at the weighty hand of primogeniture and entailment,” Dr. Rampelli comments on this particular novel and adaptation. Its historical accuracy and on-point dialogue immerse you in the 1700s setting of the story, while Hugh Grant’s presence reminds you that you are watching the stars of the 90’s bring Austen’s work to life.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Yet another Pride and Prejudice adaptation (sensing a favorite, here?) that instantly became a classic. The British film directed by Sharon Maguire sports both Hugh Grant AND Colin Firth as love interests for this updated interpretation of Austen’s work. The wackiest and most modern adaptation, this film makes the story more of a rom-com than a straight-through romance. Siri, play “All By Myself” by Céline Dion.
“As much as Austen’s novels tried to call out class and gender norms, they also provide stability and structure,” Dr. Rampelli concludes. “The novels nonetheless end in the marriage plot, and the world resumes order at the closure. Tea parties and balls go on. Even the major events of wars or the slave trade are present but cloaked. This gives readers/viewers reassurance. Austen’s novels were even prescribed to war veterans with PTSD as a means of recovery after WWI. We’ve long looked to Austen for this comfort. Amid global pandemics, inflation, race turmoil—this is the backdrop when we turn to her.”
Lizmary Ortiz is a student at Holy Family.